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As Buddhists we practice compassion, but if we lack an understanding of this third seal—that all phenomena are empty—our compassion can backfire. If you are attached to the goal of compassion when trying to solve a problem, you might not notice that your idea of the solution is entirely based on your own personal interpretation. And you might end up as a victim of hope and fear, and consequently of disappointment. You start by becoming a “good mahayana practitioner,” and, once or twice, you try to help sentient beings. But if you have no understanding of this third seal, you’ll get tired and give up helping sentient beings.
There is another kind of a problem that arises from not understanding emptiness. It occurs with rather superficial and even jaded Buddhists. Somehow, within Buddhist circles, if you don’t accept emptiness, you are not cool. So we pretend that we appreciate emptiness and pretend to meditate on it. But if we don’t understand it properly, a bad side effect can occur. We might say, “Oh, everything’s emptiness. I can do whatever I like.” So we ignore and violate the details of karma, the responsibility for our action. We become “inelegant,” and we discourage others in the bargain. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often speaks of this downfall of not understanding emptiness. A correct understanding of emptiness leads us to see how things are related, and how we are responsible for our world.
You can read millions of pages on this subject. Nagarjuna alone wrote five different commentaries mostly dedicated to this, and then there are the commentaries by his followers. There are endless teachings on establishing this view. In Mahayana temples or monasteries people chant the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra—this is also a teaching on the third seal.
Philosophies or religions might say, “Things are illusion, the world is maya, illusion,” but there are always one or two items left behind that are regarded as truly existent: God, cosmic energy, whatever. In Buddhism, this is not the case. Everything in samsara and nirvana—from the Buddha’s head to a piece of bread—everything is emptiness. There is nothing that is not included in ultimate truth.
Question: If we ourselves are dualistic, can we ever understand emptiness, which is something beyond description?
Buddhists are very slippery. You’re right. You can never talk about absolute emptiness, but you can talk about an “image” of emptiness—something that you can evaluate and contemplate so that, in the end, you can get to the real emptiness. You may say, “Ah, that’s just too easy; that’s such crap.” But to that the Buddhists say, “Too bad, that’s how things work.” If you need to meet someone whom you have never met, I can describe him to you or show you a photograph of him. And with the help of that photo image, you can go and find the real person.
Ultimately speaking, the path is irrational, but relatively speaking, it’s very rational because it uses the relative conventions of our world. When I’m talking about emptiness, everything that I’m saying has to do with this “image” emptiness. I can’t show you real emptiness but I can tell you why things don’t exist inherently.
In Buddhism there’s so much iconography that you might think it was the object of meditation or an object of worship. But, from your teaching, am I to understand that this is all non-existent?
When you go to a temple, you will see many beautiful statues, colors and symbols. These are important for the path. These all belong to what we call “image-wisdom,” “image-emptiness.” However, while we follow the path and apply its methods, it is important to know that the path itself is ultimately an illusion. Actually, it is only then that we can properly appreciate it.
The Fourth Seal
Nirvana is Beyond Extremes
Now that I have explained emptiness, I feel that the fourth seal, “Nirvana is beyond extremes,” has also been covered. But briefly, this last seal is also something uniquely Buddhist. In many philosophies or religions, the final goal is something that you can hold on to and keep. The final goal is the only thing that truly exists. But nirvana is not fabricated, so it is not something to be held on to. It is referred to as “beyond extremes.”
We somehow think that we can go somewhere where we’ll have a better sofa seat, a better shower system, a better sewer system, a nirvana where you don’t even have to have a remote control, where everything is there the moment you think of it. But as I said earlier, it’s not that we are adding something new that was not there before. Nirvana is achieved when you remove everything that was artificial and obscuring.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a monk or a nun who has renounced worldly life or you are a yogi practicing profound tantric methods. If, when you try to abandon or transform attachment to your own experiences, you don’t understand these four seals, you end up regarding the contents of your mind as the manifestations of something evil, diabolical and bad. If that’s what you do, you are far from the truth. And the whole point of Buddhism is to make you understand the truth. If there were some true permanence in compounded phenomena; if there were true pleasure in the emotions, the Buddha would have been the first to recommend them, saying, “Please keep and treasure these.” But thanks to his great compassion, he didn’t, for he wanted us to have what is true, what is real.
When you have a clear understanding of these four seals as the ground of your practice, you will feel comfortable no matter what happens to you. As long as you have these four as your view, nothing can go wrong. Whoever holds these four, in their heart, or in their head, and contemplates them, is a Buddhist. There is no need for such a person even to be called a Buddhist. He or she is by definition a follower of the Buddha.
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche was born in Bhutan in 1961 and was recognized as the second reincarnation of the nineteenth-century master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. He has studied with and been empowered by some of the greatest Tibetan masters of this century, notably the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the late Dudjom Rinpoche. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche supervises his traditional seat of Dzongsar Monastery in Eastern Tibet, as well as newly established colleges in India and Bhutan. He has also established meditation centers in Australia, North America and the Far East. This article is based on a talk entitled, “What Buddhism Is, and Is Not,” given in Sydney, Australia in April of 1999.
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